WESTFIELD, Ind. – Everyone who's coached Michael Pittman Jr. has had to gently remind the hyper-competitive wide receiver of something, especially the heat of midsummer training camp practices.
"Pitt, we need you to be smart," they'll tell him.
"I'm gonna be smart," Pittman says, "but I'm not gonna let anything slide."
Welcome to the fourth year of Colts training camp with Pittman, the 6-foot-4, 223-pound dude who's not afraid to punch you in the mouth – literally. Every team wants physicality and competition in their training camp; few players embody that mentality more than Pittman.
"I want that smoke," wide receivers coach Reggie Wayne said. "I want all that in my room and hopefully that same competitive nature can kind of rub off on everybody."
It's grown ever since his first camp, the COVID-altered one in 2020 where he was mostly nervous and unsettled – feelings most rookies experience through the grind and pressure of their initial preseason. Pittman is now looked to as a leader in the Colts' wide receiver room – he's a veteran now, with 46 games, 227 catches and 2,510 receiving yards to his name.
So Pittman knows how he sets the tone every time he steps on the field will trickle down to the rest of the Colts' wide receivers – and the guys going up against them.
"I'm a guy that if I let somebody get away with something on me, they're gonna go do it to Alec (Pierce) or they're gonna go do it to Ashton (Dulin) and Josh (Downs)," Pittman said in an interview on the Official Colts Podcast this week. "So even if it seems small, I'm going to do something back just because that's how it goes. I am seen as that vet, and if they think they could do it to me then they'll definitely do it to my other wideouts. So that's kind of my way of protecting them is not letting anything slide — whether it's small, whether it's big, I'm gonna react."
The Colts' 2022 season wore on Pittman, who described the trudge to a 4-12-1 record as the lowest point he's had playing football. General manager Chris Ballard alluded to some frustrating, emotional moments for Pittman – which, ultimately, stemmed for how badly Pittman wants to compete.
"I don't mind guys that are emotional and care because they want to win and guys that want the ball," Ballard said. "That stuff doesn't bother me. I would rather have a guy like Pitt who wants it and wants to win and does all the little things competitively right instead of a guy that just accepts what his role is. Having him, his presence, his competitive nature, the way he works ... he's a big piece of what we do."
But the way Pittman leads has grown beyond getting in someone's face to defend his teammates or wearing his emotions on his sleeve.
This summer, Pittman spearheaded a Miami get-together with Colts quarterbacks Sam Ehlinger, Gardner Minshew and Anthony Richardson along with, as he estimated, about 95 percent of the team's skill position players. For about four hours every morning, Pittman and his teammates went through walkthroughs, film study and caught passes at the University of Miami, getting valuable time-on-task ahead of the start of training camp. The group re-convened in the evening for dinner, building togetherness and trust with the goal of everyone hitting the ground running in late July.
"When you've got guys that take it upon themselves to say, 'Hey let's do this. We don't need coaches around to go get better,'" head coach Shane Steichen said. "They had a chance to go in and I guess got a meeting room and they walked through and they did classroom work, and I think when you do that it builds camaraderie and obviously it gets guys on the same page so you can start training camp fast."
The way Pittman leads on and off the field has made him one of the team's go-to guys in setting a tone for the 2023 season.
Sometimes, setting that tone will mean being the most physical guy on the field – especially during joint practices with the Chicago Bears and Philadelphia Eagles in August. Maybe he'll cross a line if he feels like it needs to be crossed. But if he does, the Colts will remind him to not go too far – while also appreciating the competitive edge he carries with him at all times.
"I haven't had that talk (about being smart) with anybody yet," Pittman said, "But I only think that's because Shane hasn't seen it yet."
View the best images as players hit the field for the first day of 2023 Colts Training Camp presented by Koorsen Fire & Security.